How long did it take you to get good at building keyboards?

Hey all! I’m posing this question to this forum, as opposed to r/mk, because I get the sense that a higher percentage of your actually build, solder, or design pcbs and keyboards.

Over the past three or so years I’ve been in the hobby, I’ve attempted some mods (some that went well, some that didnt), and am slowly learning how to solder and actually build boards (with a lot of mishaps along the way).

I am curious: how many keyboards did you build and/or mod before you felt comfortable/trusted yourself to put together higher end customs or do serious modifications (like full-board OEM switch-swapping, for instance)?

Did you already have soldering experience before getting into the hobby?

What do you wish you had done differently when developing building techniques and mastery?

Asking as somehow who is trying to get as good as they can as quickly as possible. Thank you!

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So for me it really wasn’t too long at all before I was confident in my building skills. Although I did have a good bit of experience working with/knowledge about electronics & soldering coming into the hobby since I took electronics courses in Vo-Tech during HS. To put a number on it, I’d say after 3 builds I felt confident enough that I would’ve took on a very high end build after that.

That said there is so much more that goes into tweaking builds for the best performance & sound (lubing switches & springs, spring swapping, part swapping, sound damping, etc.), which is highly subjective & personal. So you really don’t stop learning & improving even after you’ve become confident in your building skills.

I can’t say I regret anything I did when learning the ropes. It’s all trial & error to find your personal preference so screw ups will happen. The trick is to not get mad about them or regret them, but to learn from them. So mistakes when finding your way into building are more of a good thing than a bad thing IMHO.

Really the best advice I can give you is to watch a bunch of highly rated soldering tutorials to get an ideal of what the best equipment & techniques are. Watch some build streams & read some build logs from the more respected builders in the community to get an ideal of the best techniques. Then invest in the highest quality soldering tools you can afford. The proper tools make everything much, much easier. Then to find some broken PCBs that have a decent amount of through hole component & some SMD components. Use them to practice desoldering/soldering by removing & replacing parts. Once you feel comfortable working on them it should be more than safe to build a board.

Oh the other big pieces of advice I’d give is to ask for help if you’re stuck on a part of the process & always give someone’s advice at least a good thought if not a try (unless it’s obviously bad or misinformed). I’ve worked in carpentry my whole life & have seen even some of the dumbest laborers stumble across a great idea nobody else had thought of.

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Hmmm;

Typically my current approach is having confidence in myself to execute modification efficiently and effectively using the knowledge I have on hand.

For example if I was trying a mod for the first time ever, my main goal first is to understand the background behind it as well as how it works and how to implement it so when I get around to trying it out, it hopefully won’t be my fault if it is good or bad, but more of if the idea works or not.

Of course I wasn’t always like this. I didn’t know how to solder at all before getting into keyboards and learned how to solder, desolder, jump pads, SMD solder, and more from working on keyboards and doing my own research on these subject matters.

I think it wasn’t until maybe my 4th or 5th keyboard I felt completely and fully comfortable with higher end customs and doing more intensive modification processes.

Something I wish I had done differently when developing building techniques and mastery?

Watch the first and sixth video of this playlist. It’s an oldie but a classic.

A lot of Pace’s older videos are actually a good watch if you are interested in tinkering about with small electronics, but not too many of them have skills directly helping with keyboard building and modding.

My advice is go slow and steady to build confidence first, and then just keep practicing. When I got into the hobby, I would purposely rebuild the same board 3-4 times to try out different switches, different switch modifations, etc. Sometimes you just have to experiment as well.

Huey Example 1:
The first keyboard I soldered on my own was a tray mount 60% with gateron blues (this was when gateron was brand new to the scene and the cherry mx patent had just expired). That board lasted 18 hours before I decided I wanted to desolder it and try out these fancy gold plated springs I purchased from a guy I could have swore was named Spirit (I was dumb and thought Sprit was Spirit :man_shrugging:). From there I ended up burning one of the .pads since it was my first time desoldering and had to use that to teach myself how to bridge pads.

Huey Example 2:
My old MX mini that @Nebulant now owns. It has been soldered and desoldered over a dozen times (conservative estimate) for the sake of different switches, different lubes, different stems, and a whole plethora of things.

Just get out there with a smile on your face and practice. We’re always available to help you troubleshoot as well here on Keebtalk :smiley:

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I took the advice of people on forums and use a TS80 (although I only have the wedge tip at the moment). I also got one of the highly rated solder-suckers and lead solder, so I havent been skimping on the tools.

I have a board that I busted modding that I’m going to use to get good at desoldering I also jumped in too soon and tried to build a gingham and ended up getting a diode mixed up and stripped a pad trying to desolder it…although I did manage to successfully desolder one diode so yay me I guess). So…now in addition to practicing soldering/desoldering, I have to learn how to scratch a trace.

I think I’m going to order a cheap soldering kit off amazon and try to make a simple circuit before I do too much else.

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Thanks for the link and for your advice!

I took an electronics class back in high school but it was a long time since that when I got into keyboards. I bought a little practice kit to get reacquainted with soldering before working on my first keyboard. I picked it up quickly again like riding a bicycle.

So I’d say the actual building part didn’t take long to feel confident with but there are so many other factors in feeling good about a build like, switch mods, lubing, stabilizer mods and lubing. I still haven’t perfected my stabs and I’m a good 10 boards in so there’s definitely an art to it.

I think as long as you’re confident that you can fix or change any of your mistakes that’s all that matters!

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Thanks! Yea, I have definitely messed up some OEMs in the past trying to mod them that I’ve gotten a little keyboard-shy. In fact I ended up basically giving away a Plum board on mechmarket that was so frustrating to perfectly dome swap I eventually got tired of opening it, realigning it, closing it, checking it, opening it up again, that I finally just gave up. The part about being confident in fixing things rings true to me, because the first time I went to solder I was so scared about screwing it up that my hands were shaking…and I ended up screwing it up. I think I’m going to have to get some cheap pcb kits and just start slower.

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I had four years of electronics in high school, and part of the coursework included diagnosing and repairing old radios and TVs, so I had a fair amount of soldering experience back in the day. Then there was a 30+ year gap in which I don’t recall touching a soldering iron once, followed by this. So while on paper I had plenty of experience, in reality I was very rusty.

Cheap PCB kits are a great way to build confidence - that was the first thing I did before building my first board.

I think if I was to do anything differently, I’d echo a theme Manofinterests touched on - before you attempt a new mod, think through what the mod is intended to do and how to evaluate the impact of the mod. For the first few builds, I was much more “build first and ask questions later”, which is (a lot of) fun in the moment, but perhaps not the ideal way to learn. On the other hand, I’d also echo Rob27shred - if each build isn’t slightly uncomfortable in some way, then you’re probably not learning anything. Mistakes happen, embrace them.

It wasn’t until my 19th build that I did full-board switch swapping, and only then after doing a bunch of homework to understand how to go about that process. In retrospect, I could have attempted it much earlier in my journey, but I think I had a bit of a mental block on the idea that I was about to tear apart a fully-functioning board, and what if I break it? Kind of nuts, since at the point when I’m 18 boards in, the overwhelming majority of the damage to my wallet has already been done - one board isn’t going to change the picture much.

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My first two keyboard projects were desoldering two prebuilt TKLs and then soldering in new switches. One of those had 4 pin leds in each switch. That sucked. That sucked bad. Nothing went wrong other than it took forever… and it sucked. Gave one of those TKLs to my cousin and he’s still using it years later.

Prior to that, I’ve only soldered electric guitar components (maybe three times), so this was a good baptism by fire with doing the most painful thing (desoldering) most people end up doing.

By the time I soldered my third board I felt I had the hang of soldering and could do it without thinking about it.

By the fifth build, I felt comfortable modding stabilizers. This is also when I experimented heavily with frankenswitches.

Sometime after that, I started lubing switches. Did a build with lubed switches and thought, “Nope, not worth it to me.”

Shortly after that, I realized I really don’t like switch modding much anymore either. Give me stock Gat Blacks or Cherry blacks, and I’ll be more than happy.

Now, I don’t know how many boards I’ve built, but I can do most all of it in my sleep and I’m pretty stress free about the thought of building a board.

Key things:

  • Use good equipment.

  • I use lead solder. I’m mindful of having worked with lead when I’m done. I make sure I wash my hands thoroughly multiple times when I’m done before I go around the house touching everything or touching my face or petting my dog. Dogs/pets are cute and nice - don’t accidentally cause them harm.

  • ALWAYS VENTILATE YOUR WORKSPACE. I use a box fan to blow across where I’m working in my garage. I hate the feeling of coughing my brains out for days after a soldering session from inhaling fumes.

  • When I’m soldering, I put the tip to the pad and start feeding solder onto where the tip and pad meet. This lets the molten solder pool help heat the pad so that the solder can adhere better. I can usually visually see when the solder is “sucked” into the pad and then I know that joint is good. When you’re done, you should see a shiny little volcano shaped mound.

  • Do prep work ahead of time. If I know I have parts coming in, I prep what I can before I get to solder time. I usually clip and lube my stabilizers as well as band-aid mod the PCB the night before. Then I wake up early and solder before my morning shower. This allows you to actually focus on each thing you’re doing without feeling like you want to just rush through any part of the build.

  • ALWAYS do a test fit to make sure you have the switches in the correct spots for the layout you want. Horrible feeling to “finish” and then realize that the caps don’t fit correctly because you screwed up where to put each switch, which leads us into the next thing…

  • If you do end up having to do the awful, evil, horrible, no good, very bad task of desoldering and you’re using a manual solder sucker, make sure it is properly lubricated. Wasted so much time dealing with poor suction on my solder sucker. I used Aquaphor that I had laying around for tattoo recovery to lube the inside of the solder sucker. And then, that sucker sucked. Also, I’m not recommending you use Aquaphor. Don’t know if that’s “safe” to use on everything. I was just desperate and angry. Also, desoldering isn’t fun.

  • When you think you’re done. CHECK EVERY SWITCH to ensure you soldered it. Just glance over each switch on the board to see if you see two shiny volcanoes looking back at you. If you don’t, you’re not done. Figure this out now instead of after putting everything away, cleaning up, and assembling. This is how I know we haven’t invented time travel yet. Current me would have gone back and slapped past me for doing exactly this.

What I wish I knew:

  • I don’t like lubing my switches. I don’t like the idea of having to relube switches. I want to solder that board once and never solder it again.

  • I like a heavy application of lube on my stabilizers. Tribosys 3204. My early builds weren’t lubed as much and the rattle they developed much earlier on really bugged me.

  • Desoldering is the worst part of it all. Avoid it.

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If you think you’re going to be doing any meaningful amount of switch swapping on OEM boards, or just a meaningful amount of desoldering in general, and if you have the budget for it, a desoldering gun will change your life. Desoldering goes from a monumental PITA to a minor annoyance at worst. A fair number of people around here (including me) use this one.

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Yea the idea of lubing anything other than stabs has never appealed to me. I have a handful of stock switches I like, some on the higher end, some of the lower end, and anything that “needs” lube to be good I just wont use.

Yea even though I am barely into building I have already looked into where I can get one used. I want to mod OEMs because thats part of how I got into boards. I wonder how a cheaper desoldering tool like this performs https://www.amazon.com/Soldering-Holding-Solder-Desoldering-Circuit/dp/B07V2189Q9/ref=sr_1_46?keywords=Desoldering+Tool&qid=1579784093&sr=8-46

Just to be clear, the “gun” of that device isn’t a desoldering pump. Looks like it’s just a way to feed solder to the iron tip.

The actual hand pump that comes with that kit is pretty decent for how cheap it is. I bought one of them a few years ago and it came with spare tips and desoldering wick for about $10. I’ve since replaced it with an SS-02, which I would say is better overall but can also be kind of a pain. YMMV but I’d look for that solder sucker separately from the iron you linked to.

To me the harder part of building a keyboard exactly to my taste and needs was QMK. There is so much more i could do with it beyond just the simple keymap but thankfully there is plenty online resource material.
Still i havent yet mastered led patterns or jingles and probably thats a long way away

i have the ss-02 currently and i just bought some solder wick to help with a project

Ah. Then I wouldn’t bother shopping around for a different solder sucker unless you want to upgrade to a full desoldering gun like the one jshufelt suggested.

The Hakko is fantastic, probably the best investment I’ve made to my soldering setup.

A bit joking, but idrk at what point I would have considered what I’m doing as “good” vs what I had previously done. It seems more of a constantly adapting and becoming more efficient over time thing vs just “clicking” into being good at it. For me though all I’m really considering is the soldering aspect since I don’t really do much for switch or stab modding to get what I want from boards.

I will say that even as long as I’ve been soldering on boards now, going on 4yrs, I do still do some dumb stuff in building like completely missing a switch or more recently completely forgetting my PCB-mount spacebar stabs until I had finished soldering. Turns out you can install them with most of your board soldered if you really need to.


On the tools discussion:

Soldering irons: So while I do own a nice fancy Hakko FX888D that I use for all my cable work, I no joke have a better time using my little Tekpower TP13 for all of my PCB work. I haven’t pinned down quite what it is that just seems to work better, but it’s just so much easier getting a nice joint with it even though it’s a much lower tier iron than the Hakko. Might be as simple as tip angle, or no display meaning I’m actually running it like 200° hotter than the Hakko :thinking:

Desoldering: I started off with one of those cheapo pumps that everyone has and quickly decided it sucked(hah). When I wanted a budget option I had a much better time with a bulb style dedicated iron than I ever did with the pumps.
Later on I was doing enough of my own desoldering work for testing stuff that I moved to a proper station that was loads better than either the pumps or the bulbs and made the work easy enough that I felt like offering desoldering work. I’ve been happy with how it works and it takes Hakko consumables so they’re easy to find. Unlike the Hakko linked above the big difference is this is a desktop unit that can take up a decent spot of your work space while the Hakko is self contained in the gun, so you’re paying for space convenience really.

Solder: Way back I used to just trust my solder needs to the whims of no-name Ebay solder. Took approximately one bad batch of that in the middle of a cable GB to realize that was a mistake. Since then I’ve only used Kester: 44 63/37 .8mm for my cable work, 245 “noclean” 63/37 .8mm for my PCB work. ~$25/lb can seem a bit steep, but you’ll work off that spool for absolute ages and it’ll be well worth the ease of use and finish quality over cheap stuff.
I find .8mmm/.031" to be a nice all-purpose size where you’re not shoveling a foot of it into a switch joint but you’re also not easily overloading pads with it either. 245 noclean is one of the best things you can do for your board soldering experience as it’s so much better than the typical “flux spots everywhere” experience of “plain” solders.
Sure some people may be spooked by the thought of leaded solder, but as long as you’re following the safety procedures you should already be using, leaded or not, then there’s no actual risk for the ease of use.

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Do you have a different tips on your soldering irons? I recently got a new curved sharper tip and it’s made a huge difference for me.
Also, do people not use lead solder?

I use exclusively unleaded solder.
If you have a good Iron it is not significantly more difficult, although I strongly suggest to use leaded one when learning how to solder.
One think to note is to take extra care of your tips; as you’re heating them at much higher temparature they tend to oxydize much faster.

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